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Have you ever come upon something in a surprising place?


I have – just yesterday, as a matter of fact.


I found myself driving through the historic neighborhoods of the Encanto district in downtown Phoenix, yesterday morning.  I had just finished up a landscape consultation in the area and I decided to take some time and drive through the neighborhoods and admire the homes in the historic district.  


My goal was to see if I could find the home that my grandparents owned in the 1940’s.  While I didn’t find the home, I did see a house that not only made me stop my car – I had to get out for a closer look.

What first drew my eye was this parking strip (also known as a ‘hellstrip‘) between the sidewalk and street.  It was filled with a bounty of flowering annuals and perennials.

I could believe that this was growing just blocks away from the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix. 


I whipped out my phone and started to take pictures.  While the California poppies, red flax and plains coreopsis caught my eye, in the background I noticed the old, Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum where the Arizona State Fair is held every fall.


As I made my way up the planting bed, I saw more colorful, annual flowers intermixed with globe mallow, ‘Thundercloud’ sage and red yucca.


One flower that I did not expect to see growing in the desert, not to mention downtown Phoenix, was larkspur with its deep purple spikes.


Multi-colored bachelor’s button flowers grew among scarlet flax and plains coreopsis.

As I stood admiring the effect that all these flowering plants had on the street landscape, I happened to meet the son (James) of the owner of the house.  He was busy working out in the garden and he was flattered at my interest in this space that he had created.

Last fall, James took 3 packs of wildflower seeds (multiple varieties) and threw them on the bare parking strip, added some compost on the top and watered well.  Then he watched them come up and even he couldn’t believe how beautiful they were.

It just goes to show you that wildflowers are easy to grow and thrive on neglect.

He then offered to show me what he had done to the backyard and I couldn’t wait to see it after seeing what he done on the outside.

(A few of the following photos are a bit blurry.  I’m not sure what went wrong with my phone’s camera, but you can still get a sense of the beauty in the backyard.)


The backyard consisted of a lawn, which was split in two by a large planting bed filled with hollyhocks.


I love hollyhocks and always have some growing in my garden.  They self-seed and flower for me every spring.  All I give them is a little water – that’s all they need.


The small patio in the back of the house was filled with an old-fashioned table and chairs – it fit the age of the home perfectly!

The pathway that separated the two lawn areas and led to the garage in the back, was created using concrete molded in to geometric shapes.


Bermuda grass was allowed to grow into the cracks for an interesting look.


The patio was edged with flowering annuals and yellow daisy (Euryops pectinatus).


In this blurry photo, a large crown-of-thorns plant was thriving in a tiny container.  Believe it or not, it is 20 years old and is seemingly thriving in a very small pot.  According to James, he waters it twice week in summer and weekly throughout the rest of the year.


Two Chinese elm trees provided dappled shade on this beautiful spring’s day.


A small potting bench stood in front of the wooden fence that had been painted a greenish-chartreuse color, which blended in well with the garden.

A fountain stood in the center of this grassy area, adding the refreshing sound of water.

I could just imagine how relaxing it would be to enjoy this outdoor space, even in the middle of summer with all of its shade.


As I bade a reluctant goodbye to the hollyhocks, we then ventured back out to the parking strip and James then showed me that he had planted wildflowers next to the detached garage.



Bright pink and vibrant orange – doesn’t that remind you of the 70’s?


These tall poppies were planted from 3 year-old seed that James was going to throw out.  I’m certainly glad that he decided to plant them instead.
While old seed won’t germinate as well as young seed, you’ll often still get some seeds to sprout – just not as many.


Poppies always have a spot in my garden.  I have red poppies with black centers that come up every year from seed.  They grow in my vegetable garden where they get the extra water that they need.

It is unexpected surprises like this that make life interesting.  This garden was fairly small, but beautifully tended to.  Ironically, most of what was growing in it, grew from seed with little effort.

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Easter is always a busy time in our family.  After church in the morning, we all gather at my mother’s for a delicious dinner and more importantly, the Easter egg hunt for the kids.

My granddaughter, Lily, was really getting the hang of finding the eggs.


But, even the big kids were able to find a lot of eggs too!


Here I am posing with my sisters (I’m the one in the middle).  While we don’t plan to take photos together, we always seem to get one of the three of us together every Easter.

I hope you had a wonderful Easter holiday!

What do you think of when someone mentions ‘sustainable landscaping’ to you?  


Do visions of stark landscapes with a few dried out plants and cactus come to mind?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Sustainable landscapes are beautiful, low-maintenance and drought-tolerant.

Scottsdale Xeriscape Demonstration Garden
Last week, I spent an entire day visiting some great sites throughout the greater Phoenix area, which have some great examples of sustainable landscaping.  

Now if you are thinking that I did this all by myself, you would be wrong.  My friend and fellow southwest-blogger, Pam Penick, came up for a visit from Austin, Texas to see how we do sustainable landscaping here in Phoenix.

Our first stop was a visit to Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus in the East Valley.  

A row of Palo Blanco (Acacia willardiana) trees stand along the side of an arroyo that catches rain water.

The campus is located on a former Air Force Base and it was decided that the lackluster appearance of the location needed a huge facelift.

The new academic complex consists of several buildings connected by separate courtyards – each with great examples of sustainable landscaping.

Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis) trees, Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) shrubs and potted Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis)

Each courtyard had inviting, shady areas along with sunny spots so that whatever the season, students were drawn to enjoy the outdoors.

All the plants were arid-adapted and relatively low-maintenance.


Concrete cisterns collected sporadic rainfall and the overflow is directed toward a swale that collected excess storm water.  Plants along the swale benefit from the extra water.

Most of the area within the courtyards was covered in stabilized, decomposed granite (DG) that allows rainwater to permeate and keeps the ‘heat island’ effect away in the absence of excess concrete.

Gabion wall with Lady’s Slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)

Gabion walls are filled with river rock that had been saved from the previous site and were used throughout the complex to create low walls.  One of my favorite succulents, lady’s slipper, looks great when planted against walls like this one.

Aloe Vera planted in rows underneath Palo Blanco trees.

I must admit that I have not been a huge fan of aloe vera plants.  But, after seeing how effectively they were used throughout the courtyards, I have changed my mind.

They are so striking when used in masses like this.  Of course, I realize that this is their best season and soon they will be done flowering, but even when out of flower, the striking texture of the leaves would still look great in this area.

Aloe Vera

Here is another photo of the aloe vera – I’m really loving this plant now.

Anna’s Hummingbird and Aloe Vera flower.

The hummingbirds were very busy feeding from the flowers of the aloe.

The concrete that was removed during construction was repurposed into step stones, benches and retaining walls.

Called ‘urbanite’, this recycled material is becoming increasingly popular and is one great choice for hardscapes.

If you are renovating your landscape and concrete removal is part of that – think about reusing it in the landscape.  Want to use ‘urbanite’ and don’t have any broken concrete?  You can sometimes find it available on Craigslist.


Palo verde trees were in full bloom and used to great effect with the straight, modern lines of the building.


One of the reasons that I love palo verde trees so much (I have three in my own garden), is that they have great branch architecture – meaning that they shape of the branches and how they grow is beautiful.


During heavy rainfall, excess water runs from the cistern down the swale, watering the plants alongside it.

River rock removed during construction was saved and reused for the cisterns and the swales.


The outside of the buildings were covered with grape ivy, which help to keep the building cooler as it helps shield the building from the sun’s rays.


The walkway the ran alongside the buildings was planted with Sonoran desert natives such as Palo Verde and Creosote.


Along the walkways, arroyos were created to help channel storm water in this area that was previously covered in concrete and would flood frequently.


Mesquite trees were salvaged for use in this area and smaller shrubs and cacti were planted along the arroyo.

There are many different elements of this landscape that contribute to its sustainability – the use of recycled plants and materials, areas formerly flooded now direct storm water toward cisterns and plants, reduced concrete areas decrease the heat island effect, and finally arid-adapted plants decrease the need for supplemental water.

*I attended school at the main campus of ASU in Tempe.  Since then, my major (Urban Horticulture) has been moved to the Polytechnic Campus.  How I wish that I had had the opportunity to study at this beautiful campus!

This landscape was designed by Ten Eyck Architects who won an ASLA award for the sustainable design of the landscape.  To learn more about this well-designed landscape, click here.

Pam and I had a wonderful visit and this was just the first stop on our tour!

Next time, I will show you the next spots along our journey including some innovative landscapes that need no supplemental water, while still looking beautiful.
When most people think of a ‘sustainable landscape’, they view one that is boring, filled with few plants which is why they are often surprised to see how beautiful they are.
 
Over the past couple of weeks, we have talked about small steps that you can take toward a more sustainable landscape and today, we will finish up our series with a few more steps you can take in your own garden.
 
Re-think what you plant in pots.
 
Leaf lettuce, garlic, parsley growing along side petunias.
 
If you are like most people, you have a few pots that you fill with flowering annuals, which you fertilize on a semi-regular basis.
 
But, how about thinking outside of the box about what we add to pots.
 
For example, did you know that many vegetables do great in pots and are also attractive?  I like to grow vegetables in my pots and add a couple of annual flowers in for a little color.
 
 
While some flowering annuals can be a bit fussy (pansies, for example) – herbs are not.  They look great in pots, are on hand whenever you need a bunch of fresh herbs for cooking and they don’t need as much water and fertilizer as flowers.
 
Crown-of-Thorns, Lady’s Slipper, Elephant’s Food and a cactus.
Succulents make beautiful pots with their varied textures.  Because the store water inside, they do not need as much water as other container plants.



A helpful tip for planting a large container – fill the bottom third with recyclable plastic bottles.  Most plant’s won’t reach to the bottom of large containers and it is a waste of money to fill up the entire pot with expensive potting soil.  Another bonus is that it also makes your pot a bit lighter.


Use natural or recycled materials when possible.

Gate made from old Ocotillo canes and tree branches.
Often, when we are adding elements to our landscape, we overlook the many things that are recycled or natural that can fill that need.
 
For example – did you know that you can create a ‘living’ fence made from Ocotillo canes?  It’s true! I have seen them my local nursery.
 
Pathway made from recycled, broken concrete.
If your landscape needs a path – instead of buying new pavers or step stones, use recycled, broken concrete.  Or use natural stone products like flagstone.
 
 
It is hard to overstate how boulders can help a landscape go from ‘okay’ to ‘fabulous’.
 
Boulders add both height and texture without needing any water or pruning.  In addition, boulders make plants look better when they are planted alongside.
 
 
Eliminate or decrease the use of pesticides.
 
Leaf-roller caterpillar damage on Yellow Bells shrub.
Our first reaction when seeing insects damage on our plants is to run for the nearest pesticide in our misguided attempt to rescue our plants.
 
But, did you know that most plants can handle some damage from insects without any problem?
 
In fact, once damaging insects take up residence in our favorite plants – soon after new bugs come along that devour the bad bugs.
 
Bougainvillea Looper Caterpillar damage.
 
If you see something is eating the leaves of your plants, you have several options that are not harmful to the environment:
 
– Ignore it
– Prune off the affected foliage
– Pick off the insects (or spray off with water).
– Apply an organic pesticide such as insecticidal soap or BT (Bacillus thuringiensis).
 
You can also help to prevent damaging insects by planting ‘companion’ plants, which bad bugs do not like.  For example, planting garlic around roses helps to keep aphids away.
 
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I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts on sustainable landscaping.  My hope is that I have helped to inspire you to make some changes to your landscape to make it more sustainable.
 
I’d love to hear your thoughts or any ideas that you have done in your own garden to make it more sustainable.
 
For a complete listing of these posts with links, click here.